Command & Cactuar: A Review of Multiwinia – Survival of the Flattest for the PC

November 16, 2008 at 23:36 (Reviews, Video Games) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Three like-minded undergrads meet at Imperial College London and hit it off.  In their love of retro games, Chris Delay, Mark Morris and Thomas Arundel share a passion that proves decisive when they band together to form Introversion Software.  Almost single-handedly, Chris cooks up a little hacker sim by the name of Uplink, while his collegiate compatriots get down to the business of selling their fledgling company’s quirky debut.  They appoint themselves “the last of the bedroom programmers” and invest in some CD-Rs and ink for their printers; they make and distribute the first copies of the game by hand.  They’re a dedicated, down-to-earth bunch of dreamers, and as such, it’s a pleasant surprise to say that they didn’t fall victim to that essentially British condition Top Gear so aptly ascribes as “ambitious, but rubbish”.  Within hours of its launch, Uplink had made back the developer’s paltry initial investment – and then some.  Enough, say, for Introversion Software to take to E3 2002 and drop £10k on showy speedboats and supercars.

The path Introversion Software took from those no-doubt hazy days to the more sobering state of the industry today hasn’t always been straightforward, taking in the bankruptcy of their then-publisher to the near-insolvency they faced themselves, not to mention a series of heartbreaking delays.  Their sophomore effort finally arrived in 2005, but despite critical acclaim and strong overnight sales, few gamers were willing to drop full retail price on an indie darling from a largely unknown quantity.  So few, in fact, that Introversion Software had to sign on for government benefits to sustain themselves through the six miserable months after their failure at retail.  But then: lo, Gabe Newell said, let there be Steam.  And there was Steam.  And it was good.  Valve’s groundbreaking distribution network made a modest success of Darwinia; it was the perfect platform for such a loving throwback to find its feet, and that it did, thanks in no small part to the modding community that blossomed around Introversion Software’s geometric RTS.


Steam soon welcomed Uplink and DEFCON to the service as well, where these games, as well as Darwinia, have thrived for three years and counting.  For all the charms of its unapologetically 8-bit gameplay, however, that latter went wanting one vital component: online functionality.  Well, it might have taken a while longer than fans had hoped, but Multiwinia is here to fill in its predecessor’s inexplicable blank at last, and if you’ve had the pleasure of saving Dr Sepulveda’s digital world from the rampant viruses that threatened it before, you’ll find that things remain much as you remember them.  The Darwinians are still charming little stick-figures seemingly inspired by the Cactuars from an assortment of Final Fantasies; they spawn colour-coded at the outset of a match or at regular intervals from each base your colony captures.  They control in much the same way they ever did, which is to say abstractly.  The WASD keys and the mouse-wheel are solely for directing the floaty camera around, while the right and left mouse buttons allow you to pick out individual Darwinians from the swarms to issue with one of a scaled-back selection of commands.  And when I say scaled-back, I mean bare bones enough that hardcore RTS fans will likely find themselves underwhelmed by the scarcity of options.  Aside from some turrets you can operate from a third-person perspective, officers are the extent of the limited direct control players have over their band of brothers; these single units can be promoted to point the way forward to all those who pass, or to lead stick-figure formations into battle with enemy Darwinians.  It’s as love-it or hate-it a design decision as ever, but for those players who can see past the initially restrictive level of interaction between themselves and their minions, Multiwinia, like its forefather before it, achieves a feeling of purity that the vast majority of modern games – take note Assassin’s Creed, .skate and the fabled one-button combat of Peter Molyneux’s latest – can only dream of.


Multiwinia takes its cues from Darwinia as faithfully as you might expect from a pair of games due to be packaged together for distribution through Xbox Live Arcade; they share a great deal – not least the simplistic controls and interface, which are only the most superficial signs of the pared-down mentality that informs every aspect of Introversion Software’s sort-of sequel.  There are no resources to collect, no hero units to command nor any particularly complex tactics to overcome.  Other than the officers – new, incidentally, to this iteration – players aren’t able to order single Darwinians around; and for all that Multiwinia purports to be an RTS, the more complex strategies prove impossible to pull off.  A host of multiplayer modes and in excess of 50 maps mean that players won’t easily burn out on the uncomplicated moment-to-moment gameplay, which, in the end, largely consists of mustering a massive swarm of Darwinians to overwhelm the splintered forces of your human or AI opponents.  Up to four such players can compete in the usual gamut of game-types, including Domination, your basic deathmatch; Blitzkrieg and King of the Hill, which are variations on capture and defend; and the self-explanatory Capture the Statue.  More appealing are the less predictable modes of play Multiwinia offers up, such as assault, whereby two teams are tasked with either the protection or the destruction of a base containing a nuke, and lastly – not leastly – Rocket Riot, a game-type which revolves around several solar farms that players fight to control in a frantic race to collect enough fuel for blast off, and indeed the win.

In every other respect, however, Introversion Software are obviously of the mind that less is more, and Multiwinia stands as an fine exemplar of that estimation.  Gameplay is punchy and satisfying; and in case you start entertaining grand battle-plans, a ten minute limit on each match takes your ambition down a notch.  Multiwinia is certainly a prettier game than its predecessor was at release, but three extra years in the development oven will do that, and the occasional improvements only smooth a few of Darwinia‘s graphical slights – they do nothing to diminish the uniquely appealing aesthetic of the original, explicating instead on a several of its artistic motifs.  The landscapes you’ll do battle across retain the ethereal, otherworldly quality that made them so attractive in the first instance; an unfortunate few look as if they’ve been roughed into a graphics package and left in as curiosities, but they’re a respectfully tailored bunch overall, perfectly fit for purpose and authentic enough that their integration into the forthcoming Darwinia+ won’t seem at all out of place.  The audio, too, is fittingly minimalist, relying on occasional echoes and the distorted screams of pixels in peril to fill out a suitably nightmarish soundscape.


It’s a tasteful package, in all, but not without problems.  The AI is a long way from perfect: from simple pathfinding problems to the lack of any real middle ground in bot-matches against dull and slow Darwinians versus pixel-perfect opponents quick like lightning and merciless at the higher difficulties.  But the real fun of an ostensibly online game is online, of course, and here, where the players are as fallible as you, Multiwinia can be a great deal of fun.  It’s not the timesink that Darwinia was, perhaps, and the servers are already sparsely populated despite the lack of crowd-thinning filtering by skill level, but when you find a match against players of roughly your own abilities, Introversion Software’s latest is an ample demonstration of the benefits of fat-free game design.  Genre expectations aside, Multiwinia doesn’t bring your favourite few RTS games to mind so much as something like Geometry Wars, which managed to distil the essence of the twin-stick shooter into an experience so natural and addictive that you can still hear its sweet siren song calling if you listen closely.  Multiwinia is a triumph because of a similar leanness, but simply because there’s no narrative to charm your pants off, it lacks some of the delightful quirks of its antecedent.  Ultimately, it’s half a game, a by-product of the development of Darwinia+ for XBLA and its obligatory LIVE functionality – Introversion Software make no bones about that – and while it can be an absolute joy to dip your toes into, it’s hard to recommend to anyone other than those players who’ve already fallen for the spritely charms of Darwinia and its polygonal inhabitants, but for those about to rock, Multiwini salutes you.  I’d advise the as-yet uninitiated to wait, hopefully not too long, for the greatest hits.


1 Comment

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